It was back in 1995, and I was on holiday in Kruger National Park.
I'd stumbled on a group of about 25 banded mongooses and they were busily searching for dinner around my car. Each animal was scratching through the leaf litter, poking its nose into likely holes and raking around under fallen timber. Every now and again one would unearth a cricket or a juicy grub from a pile of dung or noisily crunch up a beetle.
Now this I was accustomed to.
I'd spent lots of time watching Australia's marsupial carnivores (e.g. quolls, dunnarts, antechinuses) and they obtain their takeaways in exactly the same way.
But what amazed me was that the mongooses totally ignored one another. Here they were trotting about, only a foot or two apart, burbling away companionably and moving along as a troop, but no one paid the slightest attention to what anyone else was eating!
Now if a family of quolls or a pair of dunnarts are out foraging and someone finds a tasty morsel, it's a free for all!
Everyone one dashes over and there's squeaking and brawling and utter fur-flying chaos. Heck, even dogs and cats will rush over to investigate if a companion makes a killing.
I guess, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been so shocked because flocks of birds hunt like this all the time, but mongooses have FUR for Heaven's sake!
|An eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus). Quolls are Australia's best attempt at a mongoose; regrettably they're solitary and nocturnal. |
Photo posted on Flickr by Shuttergirl3.
Sociality doesn't come easily to mongooses. Of the 37 species snooping about the world today, only eight (all African) have mastered the art of living together. You see mongooses are descended from a Christmas eve checkout queue of solitary, skulking killers and their physiques have remained unchanged for 30 million years.
But as the African climate dried out and savannah replaced forest, the mongooses – now perilously gadding about in the open – banded together so they'd always have someone to watch for predators. So, unlike other pack-living carnivores (such as wolves, lions or dholes), the mongooses ganged up to outsmart the beasts that ate them, rather than to up-size the beasts that they ate.
So while my little dwarf mongooses are now among the planet's most sophisticated socialites, at mealtimes their ancestral proclivity for independence shows through: everybody does their own thing, together.
Now I've explained all this, I'm going to contradict myself by describing the hour I spent with Ecthelion yesterday morning.
They were gerbil hunting - cooperatively.
I've only seen my mongooses behave this way a couple of times before, but it's always disconcerting. Their quarry, the local bushveld gerbils (Gerbilliscus leucogaster; you can see a photo of one here), live in big colonial warrens which they dig in sandy soil.
And yesterday morning, Merlin sniffed out an occupied warren. He immediately hollered for the group with a special rodent-hunting call (a bubbling, staccato version of their usual 'follow me' squeak) and the group came running. While Merlin and one or two others dug madly at the warren's main burrow entrances, everyone else milled about excitedly, watching and sniffing, pushing their noses down the many minor entrance holes, and peering under logs or into clumps of grass. They were all searching, impatiently, for any gerbil foolish enough to flee its underground home.
|Putting in the spade work.|
|'We seek him here, we seek him there...'|
|The Lazy Mongoose's Guide to Gerbil Hunting.|
Ecthelion's hunt wasn't successful (to my secret relief) as the gerbils refused to be flushed, and after three-quarters of an hour the 15 milling mouse-hunters were getting frustrated. Widening their search area brought them over to where I was sitting, with my backpack on the ground beside me. I should have foreseen this, but they began eyeing my bag speculatively, and I could see them thinking, 'Well if we can't find them anywhere else, they must be hiding in there'.
|'"They must be in that bag..."|
Soon half the group was lined up in front of me, glaring accusingly, convinced that I was harbouring their missing rodents. (Do they know me better than I realise?). Since I could think of no conceivable way to convince a group of mongooses that my backpack was gerbil-free, I shouldered the offending article and withdrew. They immediately called off their hunt ('Well, she's pinched the booty!') and headed off to forage normally.
|"Gimme the gerbils!"|
Now I know that dwarf mongooses hunting gerbils is not on a par with chimpanzees killing monkeys, but there's something worrying about these little creatures teaming up to bring down prey.
Sure, today it's just a few pesky gerbils, but where will this lead?
How long before I come across a felled duiker or a warthog nibbled off at the knees?
Come to think of it, aren't hyenas supposed to be descended from ancestral mongooses?
THAT'S where it will lead!
Just don't say I didn't warn you...